Sobering Up with the Red Pox

Remember when Idiots weren’t bad things?

In the wake of the 2004 World Series, I wrote, for a since-defunct publication, “[S]omething seems not quite right about the literature of the Boston Red Sox turning toward triumph and away from tragedy.” Specifically, I was reviewing Faithful, Stewart O’Nan’s and (yes, that) Stephen King’s collaborative, end-to-end chronicle of viewing that year’s extraterrestrial Red Sox. And I was trying to say this: A near-century’s literature of transcendental disaster, usually upon the brink of the Promised Land but not necessarily exclusive to it, could only become a literature of transcendental triteness, now that the Red Sox had won a World Series, in my lifetime and every other Red Sox Nation citizen’s.

What I should have added, but couldn’t have had the foresight to see, was that it would all depend upon the attitude, if you will, within the Red Sox following that conquest. None would have faulted them for resting on a laurel too hard earned and too long coming. But—even knowing the Red Sox’s yin-and-yang history—few including myself dared to ask whether such an engaging gang as had stood history (and the New York Yankees, while we’re at it) squarely on its head could go, from there, to become anything, at any time, equal to the worst of the Red Sox’s yin.

Valentine’s day may yet arrive . . .

The question became only somewhat more delayed when, defying the gods yet again, the Red Sox picked up from the near-misses of 2005 (a division-series sweepout by the eventual World Series winners, the Chicago White Sox) and 2006 (a third-place American League East finish, underwritten by a small but profound rash of injuries and a 9-21 August), to win a second Series, again in a four-sweep. But then came another pair of early postseason exits, and the collapse of September 2011, with all the subsequent revelations in fact, in fancy, or in fustian, followed by the 2012 disaster from which the team only begins to recuperate at this writing.

The season now starts chugging to a finish that can’t come too soon for either the Red Sox or their Nation. While the Gonzalez-Crawford-Beckett swap to the Los Angeles Dodgers has eradicated what once seemed a terminal illness, even if the Red Sox in their hearts of hearts may not really have wanted to surrender Gonzalez, if they could have helped it, it seems apparent now that the days are numbered for manager Bobby Valentine. It is fair to write that Valentine may not really have had a prayer coming in. But it is fair concurrently to write that he certainly did see his clubhouse afire and, when asked for water, gave it gasoline, too soon to afford himself any reasonable chance at clearing the toxins that remained to poison it deeper.

Some think the Weekend Wipeout between the Red Sox and the Dodgers means Valentine actually has a chance of surviving the season and managing for the second and final year of his contract. Try not to bet too heavily upon it. Unfortunately, Valentine’s reputation does precede him. And when the Red Sox enter the offseason, eyeing further trades or possible free agency signings, be not surprised if some of the targets decide it would be less taxing upon their sanities to play boccie with a shot put.

Valentine questioned Kevin Youkilis’s heart when the sole question was his body, and probably lost the clubhouse then and there. But it would be Youkilis who’d be shipped onward, to the Chicago White Sox. He betrayed to the press a confidence from reserve catcher Kelly Shoppach, who had not intended his question over playing time to go public. In due course Shoppach would be shipped onward, to the New York Mets, with the followup going-away present being implications that he had written the infamous message that led to a (some) players’ sit-down with upper brass sometimes known as Textgate. He may have praised Gonzalez publicly as a solid player and citizen after Weekend Wipeout. But it was Gonzalez’s cell phone through which the original Textgate message was sent. And it would be Gonzalez dealt to the Dodgers in due course, perhaps only partially because it was the only way to convince the Dodgers to take Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford.

And what was Textgate, really, if not a camel’s broken back after Valentine, almost inexplicably, left Jon Lester in to take an eleven-run beating from the Toronto Blue Jays in latter July before finally finding relief for Lester, who clearly didn’t have his best going into the game?

They’ve purged Beckett (a malcontented pitcher, whose injuries and inconsistences probably didn’t help his disposition, a far fall from his triumphant 2007) and Crawford (whom we know now to have been obstructed by injuries from the moment he turned up in Red Sox fatigues). They dumped a pitching coach (Bob McClure) who did not see eye to eye with Valentine. But while they rushed to fill the void in the interim with a Valentine preference (Randy Niemann), they still hold coaches (Tim Bogar, Dave Magadan, Gary Tuck) who are not necessarily Valentine allies.

Valentine’s style was the absolute last thing needed in a Red Sox dugout and clubhouse rent by a pennant race collapse, tales of actual or alleged malfeasance in the thick of it, and physical fissures in the bargain that didn’t end with those of Youklis that provoked merely his first verbal pratfall. Perhaps the Red Sox administration now comprehends it wasn’t the brightest idea to supplant a becalmed people’s manager (Terry Francona, who jumped before he could be pushed) with a man who confuses division and conquest for reasonable discipline.

Valentine may be looking respectable enough today, with a few young Sox playing well, an apparently repaired relationship with Dustin Pedroia (who called him out over Youkilis), and a fine relationship with David Ortiz. That’s today. His history suggests too many chances for another misstep. Another verbal pratfall. Another wrongly-alienated player. Another betrayed confidence. Another tactical mishap.

The rumours suggest a deal in the works to bring Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell, a former Red Sox pitching coach, home to take the Boston bridge. Other speculation has reached out to touch such different bridge prospects as longtime team captain Jason Varitek (who retired before spring training); or, recently-purged Houston Astros manager Brad Mills, formerly the Red Sox bench lieutenant as they broke the actual or alleged Curse at last.

Dr. Strangeglove; or, how he to learned to stop worrying, love the bomb, and torpedo his manager . . .

Meanwhile, a question nags: Considering the bristling writings about this year’s model, is the 2012 edition the absolute most distasteful Red Sox aggregation of any wearing the fatigues of the Olde Towne Team? Each to his or her own. Here might be previous considerations that might—might—make this year’s Red Sox seem none too terrible in comparison:

1963-64—Johnny Pesky is undermined by complacent veterans and a general manager who seems bent on making certain his greatest strength (as a teacher and mentor) doesn’t stand a prayer, no matter how many good-looking young players he has to work with. Perhaps the main example: power-hitting first baseman Dick Stuart, who might get some laughs in the clubhouse but who actually causes a few teammates to seethe, with both his chronic undermining of Pesky’s authority and his refusal to concentrate on any facet of his game other than hitting the ball over the fence. Pesky would be executed before 1964’s end; Stuart would be dealt away after the season. It won’t help all that much.

1968-69—Losing his best pitcher to a knee injury in a skiing accident after the 1967 Cinderella season, convinced his players came to spring training 1968 with less obvious desire, Dick Williams graduates from mere drill sergeant to none-too-benevolent dictator. He rides his players like a steamroller over fixable mistakes; he pits player against player based on their relationships with the team’s stars, particularly with Carl Yastrzemski; he refuses to think of himself as fallible; and, he overmanages himself out of the job, barely two years after he skippered a miracle pennant and got to within a game of winning a World Series.

The Can’s Film Festival was the least of Johnny Mac’s post-1986 troubles . . .

1987-88—First, the Red Sox enter spring training under weight of revelations that most of the team tried to stiff the clubhouse and stadium workers when it came time to divide the World Series gold. Then, Oil Can Boyd gets bagged when he forgets to return a small pile of videocassettes to a rental store, and many turn out to be of, shall we say, an “adult” nature. Wade Boggs’ chicken comes home to roost, when his long-enough-time mistress reveals some less than savoury details, actual or alleged, about the future Hall of Famer. Then, Margo Adams helps blow up that portion of the clubhouse manager John McNamara’s dubious strategies don’t. McNamara really earns his stripes when he insists on a none-too-ready Pawtucket callup, the kid gets shelled, McNamara tells reporters, “My people in Pawtucket told me he’s ready,” and his people in Pawtucket swear the next such comment will get them to call their own press conferences. Boggs’ marriage will survive a lot longer. (And, still does.)

1989—Manager Joe Morgan (no relation to the Hall of Fame second baseman), who ended 1988 with a dazzling winning attitude, tussles with too many players who have their own agendae. When Red Sox pitcher Mike Smithson brushes back Rafael Palmeiro after too many Texas Rangers dug in deep on him, only one Red Sox player—pitcher Joe Price—comes out of the dugout to stand with him as Palmeiro and the Rangers pour onto the field. Late in the season Devon White steals three bases in one inning on Price, who tells Morgan, who asked what happened, “Go [fornicate] yourself!”

Kerrigan, saving Everett in, shall we say, less contentious hours . . .

2001—Ugueth Urbina and Trot Nixon brawl on a flight out of Tampa Bay. Bench coach Gene Lamont (thought to be on the Red Sox’s post-Francona managerial radar, at first) shrugs a suggestion that they just be left to kill each other. Enough of the team tunes manager Jimy Williams out over his incessant lineup tinkering, until Williams gets dumped in August over a small slump for pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. With the Red Sox barely far behind in the division race. Outfielder Carl Everett, whose customary targets usually seemed to be umpires, almost assaults Kerrigan post-9/11—to which post-attack relief efforts the Red Sox couldn’t even agree on how much to donate as a team. Both Kerrigan and Duquette won’t be around for 2002 . . . and neither will the Red Sox ownership, selling after foolish sales process delays to John Henry and company.

Say what you will about this year’s Red Pox. But Josh Beckett never told either of his two Red Sox managers to perform anatomical impossibilities upon themselves after anyone stole even one base on him. No Red Sox player this year ever just sat on his hands while his pitcher’s brushback triggered a rhubarb. Neither the departed Adrian Gonzalez nor Carl Crawford got anywhere near trying to hand Bobby Valentine his hat (or choicer portions of his anatomy) before they departed. I haven’t heard of any in-flight brawling among 2012 players. (Yet.) Nor have I heard of any 2012 Red Sox mistress preparing to sue her incumbent or ex-man for palimony, never mind telling tales to, ahem, adult magazines. (Yet.)

Conversely, alas, none of those other toxic Red Sox clubs could boast (if that’s the right word for it) that, among them, only four incumbent players deemed worthy of their presence the funeral of a franchise icon. Who probably loved the Red Sox over his entire life far more than these Red Sox love themselves.

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